JSA: Joint Security AreaReviewed By David Cornelius
Posted 07/16/05 17:41:58
Somewhere in between “A Few Good Men” and “A Midnight Clear,” you’ll find “JSA: Joint Security Area.” The film, from “Oldboy” director Park Chan-wook (whose earlier works are finally getting American releases thanks to the success of his newest title), begins as a murder mystery, trails off into a biting drama about a nation divided, then collides the two for the final act. That’s a busy film, to be sure, and not once does it go off its mark. Like “Oldboy,” this is the work of an assured filmmaker of the highest order.“JSA” is based on the novel “DMZ,” from Sang-yeon Park; I have not read it, but the fact that the Internet Movie Database informs me that it was penned in 1972, yet still remains relevant today, saddens me. Here is the story of soldiers from both Koreas who learn not to hate their supposed enemies, and that such notions of military divide still ring true three decades apart is a tragedy, to be sure.
The Joint Security Area of the name is the demilitarized zone (hence the two titles) in between North and South Korea, run by a committee of neutral nations who swear by their efforts to remain uninvolved. It’s here that an investigation is underway concerning a shooting at a North Korean border outpost. Sgt. Lee (Lee Byung-hun) is the South Korean soldier accused of the killing; Sgt. Oh (Song Kang-ho) is the sole North Korean survivor. Neither seems to be telling the whole story.
For the first half of the film or so, Park and his screenwriting team use the mystery angle to allow us a peek inside the JSA, with its awkward customs and fragile peace. As Major Jean, Lee Yeong-ae offers a likable performance as the naďve outsider struggling to solve a crime all the while learning the ways of this strange place. It’s a nice touch - teach the audience by teaching the main character.
Better still, the mystery itself crackles with the energy of the best whodunits. As Jean pieces the night of the murder together, we lean ever so closer to the screen, trying to figure out, for example, what’s with that extra bullet that doesn’t quite add up to Lee’s testimony. Watching the first part of “JSA” is like thrilling to a great TV cop drama.
Then the film throws us a curveball, taking us back in time, showing us the months leading up to the shooting. I’m hesitant to reveal what we discover here, so I will strain to find a way to discuss what the film goes on to tell us without discussing what the plot reveals to us.
You see, “JSA” becomes a sad, thoughtful study on the nature of enemies. It all begins when one character, who’s accidentally gone too far over the border, winds up stuck in a minefield. The enemy arrives, but humanity shines through, and instead of taking him in or letting him die, they help him get free. A friendship then forms, a bond stronger than anyone could expect, and Park’s point becomes clear: why should an imaginary line drawn by governments define who we allow to be friends? Connections are made, the tiniest of cultural differences are cleverly debated (while enjoying the local music, one South Korean asks his North Korean friend why the North doesn’t have more female singers), and it begins to pain the audience that such companionship must be kept a secret.
While the film’s best scenes are due to the power the cast brings - there’s not a foul performance in the bunch, and everyone involved draws us deeper into the drama - it’s Park’s eye for direction that truly sticks out. Consider the most striking moment in the picture: a group of American tourists come to the demarcation point, where the border is actually painted on the ground. One American loses her hat, which blows over to the North side. Tensions mount, and Park places his camera above it all, looking straight down, the border dividing the screen. It’s a scene that says so much about artificial boundaries and the insanity of a division that has kept a nation split in two for over fifty years. (Better still, this moment helps set up a wallop of a final shot, in which everything ties together with a melancholy punch.)The movie is loaded with scenes like this, small, quiet portraits of division; one moment involving a border cigarette exchange is a pure marvel. Much has been said in the so-called “new wave” of Korean cinema about the two nations and the troubles that connect them and separate them, but “JSA” says it better than all the rest. And while the film is a specific tirade about two governments, the themes revealed within are universal enough to engage any viewer, no matter what language he or she speaks. This is first-rate commentary, powered by first-rate drama. It’s another triumph from one of the world’s best new filmmakers, and it is not to be missed.
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